All organizations want to identify, develop, and deploy their high-performance employees. And no wonder: The top 5% of a company’s employees account for a full quarter (26%, according to ERE Media) of its productivity.
Still, more is needed than just good intentions and “managerial instinct”—whatever that is. The best-performing companies have well-developed systems in place to identify high-potential employees and turn them into production powerhouses. In fact, all of the Fortune 100 do this on a regular basis.
Identifying those high potentials can be the trickiest part of the process. Indeed, our instincts tend to lead us astray here: Decision-makers are drawn to employees that are likable, eager, or most like them. But just because an employee is outgoing and likable does not mean he or she will fall into that magical 5%, and being similar to management might not be a good thing either—sometimes, having a different background and perspective is more valuable.
So just how does an organization go about finding its high-potential employees?
Take Notice (Even When They Think You Aren't Looking)
Much of the success that high-performing employees have stems from the fact that they have cultivated the right habits. Any employee can guess what “the right thing to do” is when the boss is looking, but only your high performers will have turned those instincts into repeatable everyday behaviors.
So observe them at work, outside of the context of a performance review or hiring situation. Try to note: Do they ask for more assignments when they have finished their work? Do they actively seek out feedback? How do they handle challenges? Their behavior will offer more clues to their work ethic than their words.
Observation is great, but it can also be prone to bias and disagreement. The best way to get around this issue when searching for high-potential employees is to use time-tested objective methods. Psychological and job assessments do this well while minimizing the cognitive biases that can creep in with more subjective managerial reports. They also tend to unearth high performers who might be a little more reserved than others.
Track Their Training
Some training is, of course, mandatory—compliance training, for example. High-potential employees will understand the importance of this training and get it done. Other training courses might not be mandatory, requiring the employee to show some initiative in identifying what training to pursue and then actually pursuing it.
Either way, having the ability to track that training will give you valuable insights into an employee’s potential. High performers tend to be self-motivated, competent, and driven in all aspects of their work. Development is no exception. So look at your records periodically: If you find an employee getting his or her mandatory training done and then looking for more, you likely have a high performer on your hands.
See Who Asks Questions
Employees who are engaged—who are “into” their work and really try to understand all aspects of their job—are naturally going to be the best performers. But engagement, by itself, is hard to measure. There is no one metric for engagement, and you can’t ask an employee if he is engaged, as many people will think they are engaged even when they are not. (Or worse, they lie.)
But you can look for other signs of engagement. When an employee asks questions—good, relevant questions—that is a sign that he truly is engaged, and so poised for productivity.
Give Them Developmental Opportunities
If your goal is to turn high-potential employees into high-performance employees, sometimes the best thing to do is start them down that path of development to see what happens. Do they take advantage of the opportunity, or not? Do they hesitate or rise to the occasion?
For example, you could have them shadow another employee with more responsibilities, giving them additional training courses, or assign them a small project that requires some organization and decision-making. Make the tasks small, so that if the employee fails, there is little harm done. This way, you can “test” a wide swath of employees to find who shines.
Observe How Well They Receive Feedback
At some point, you will probably give your employees feedback about their performance. How do they take it? Do they get defensive, or do they listen? Do they take notes, or do they appear dismissive? Do you notice them changing in light of the feedback or is it as if you never even talked? High performers are able to take constructive criticism and apply it to their work. So, if an employee is able to receive feedback well, that’s a sign that they can be developed. Indeed, they might ask for feedback themselves.
Identifying high-performing employees can be a challenge for any organization. Starting with more personal, subjective methods is fine, but you will want eventually to move toward more measurable methods, such as assessment and tracking. This will require the right tools.